I blame Byron for this vain searching, this toilet-top straining as I wax the hairs off my lower back. “Rub paper coating vigorously for thirty seconds,” the box tells me. In the chemist’s shop near Covent Garden, this seemed easy enough. No stove, no microwave, no heating technology of any kind required. But the rhythmic rubbing suddenly seems like a bad idea as the buzz of conversation and hygiene fills the room. In a stall in the men’s changing room at the Central London YMCA my challenge has become clear.
A toilet flushes. The sound gives me some cover for a few seconds of rubbing, but only a few. The automatic hand dryer comes on and I rub some more. Another toilet flushes, I rub some more. The wax feels warm enough.
With my shirt tucked under my chin and my pants around my ankles – despite the common belief that men can’t multitask, I’m doing a fair job of it – I reach back around and apply the first strip to the small of my back. Over the years a patch of feeble, curly hair has sprouted and it’s time I took care of it. “Pull upwards in direction hair grows,” the box instructs, and I do my best, but it’s more than a little arbitrary since the hair grows in swirling circles, as far as I can tell. As I rip off the strip I wonder whether Lord Byron had unwanted body hair, and if so, what he did about it.
I blame him, but really, I want to be him. Back in graduate school a professor praised me for being a Romanticist while criticizing a friend of mine for being a Romantic. We both saw the difference. The first is a scholar, a thinker, the second has to feel the inspiration, climb the mountain, swim the Hellespont. She read me wrong and I let her, because in my field Romantics have a bad name. The poet as creator, above God, above society, leads straight to Auschwitz. That’s nasty company.
But the dark side isn’t all there is to it. There’s Byron, the sad little fat kid who became the sexy, famous poet. There’s nothing Romantic about dieting, and Byron dieted for years. I’m here on the toilet because of what he swam across and what he wrote about it. As far as we know, he was the first real person to swim the Hellespont, now the Dardanelles, the strait between Europe and Asia in Turkey. The mythic Leander did it every night for a while, twice. First from Asia to Europe, where his girlfriend, Hero, waited. Christopher Marlowe describes Leander entering
orchard of th’ Hesperides,
Whose fruit none rightly can describe but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.
Which is simply Elizabethan for foreplay. Some Elizabethan lines that translate to “humpin’ and bumpin’ ” follow. Then he swam back before dawn.
Each new era’s swimmer is cheaper, more common, maybe even a little degraded. As Byron put it, Leander swam “for love, as I for Glory.” What am I doing it for? To get to the other side? I’m not sure if waxing a hairy back or trying to join Leander’s and Byron’s company is more vain. Byron swam the Hellespont on May 3, 1810, setting out from Sestos in Greece and wading up on the shore of Turkey at Abydos. If he and his swimming buddy, Lieutenant Ekenhead could do it, I can. Not a great reason, not a reason at all, but it might be that simple. That’s what sent me to the swimsuit store, the chemist’s, the stall in the men’s bathroom at the Central London YMCA, and after that, to the pool, every day. And that’s what will get me in the polluted water at Sestos on my fortieth birthday.
The wax strips sting, but the pain’s manageable. I’m hairier than I thought. Two, three, four strips covered with hair, and I’m still far from smooth. Disposal becomes a problem. I crumble the wax paper and balance the used wax strips on my thigh. One sticks and takes a while to peel off. But I manage without losing much hair there. Men continue to come and go, flushing, shaving, running the hand dryer, discussing vacations in Sydney and Rio. I keep rubbing the strips under cover of the noise and the job progresses. By the sixth strip I realize this would be a lot easier if I just took my shirt off instead of gripping it with my chin, so I do. I also realize the industrial toilets at the YMCA can handle more than the usual deposits and I flush away the used strips and the wax paper. It takes ten wax strips, but I finally have a bald lower back. Moist towelettes – a wonderful invention – clean the excess wax off my back and my makeover’s almost done. One final flush and I’m finished.
• • •
The pool’s murky with dim lights overhead. The six lanes are opened out into three wide ones, which gives more room for passing but crowds the pool. I fight past people, others occasionally brush me aside while passing. In England I’m apparently a fairly fast swimmer, and very tan. Underwater I glance at some of the whitest, roundest bellies as they bob through the water.
My new swimsuit draws stares. It makes me look like I should be the fastest one in the pool. It’s tight, black, with a sharkskin texture, and comes down to my knees. I first saw this kind of suit in 2000 when I watched the Olympics on TV. The next time I saw them was in a Speedo store on Neal Street in London, and I had to have one.
The mirrors in the dressing room had shown me my hair problem. My body was all right, but you don’t wear a swimsuit like that with a hairy back. Trunks, yes. But not a world-class racing suit that sets you back seventy bloody pounds. Sterling, no less.
So I’m in the pool with a sleek suit and a smooth back, fighting the crowd as those relaxing in the juice bar right behind a glass wall observe. Are they impressed? Am I a joke? For all I know they’re just looking in the general direction of the pool while talking about Tony Blair and weapons of mass destruction that no one seems able to find. I finish my forty laps – that would get me about a quarter of the way across the Hellespont – and head for the shower.
• • •
The waves gently wash the coast of Carlsbad, California, on a warm August day. London was many weeks ago. Now I spend my mornings at the outdoor pool at UCLA, my days at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library near downtown Los Angeles reading eighteenth-century manuscripts, and my evenings at the beach. In just a few weeks I’ll be back on the Great Plains and in the classroom.
This morning finds me a few blocks from Carlsbad’s barrio. It’s a paltry ghetto as ghettoes go, only three or four square blocks where the Mexicans and my Panamanian brother-in-law can afford places to sleep when they aren’t out serving those who own this little beach town. I don’t like these sorts of communities. They smell of Republicanism, expensive security systems and summer reading lists. But these people have most of the better beaches. I stride into the ocean, dive over the breaking surf, then pull towards the imaginary line paralleling the shore where the waves subside into hills of water floating up and down. It’s hard to find this line, maybe impossible. So I just pick a spot and start swimming south, towards Mexico. On the shore an umbrella with beach ball-colored panels marks the beginning of my swim. No one is out here but me. And maybe some sharks. Why couldn’t this possibility have occurred to me while I was still safe on shore? The water’s deep enough, that’s for sure. And it’s too filled with churning sand and seaweed for me to see more than a foot or two in the direction of the ocean floor. It could be ten or ten thousand feet below for all I can tell. This fear of sharks has me kicking gently, trying not to disturb the water much.
Leander had to fight off Neptune, who mistook him for a girl. I’d prefer that challenge to this one. As my three-year-old daughter says with great wisdom, “sharks are scary.” Could I kick one if it came close? I hear they’re afraid of dolphins because the dolphins beat them up. Could I beat one up? Hell, I’m no dolphin.
Concentrating on the shore seems like the best solution. My arms tire as they fight the surging waves. Before I’ve swum far I’m too tired and don’t worry much about being eaten. It might even be OK as long as it’s quick. A hungry shark would save me a lot of work. But I don’t want some lazy one gnawing on me, playing with his food for an hour or so.
Then I sight the beach ball umbrella. I’ve hardly moved. I dig in and kick, sharks be damned. This feels right, better at least. Infinity appears off to my right, so I turn to my left when it’s time to breathe. And there’s the beach ball umbrella. Are the waves dragging me back? Am I swimming in place? I need a lane rope, some buoys, something. Another few minutes go by and I see the same damn umbrella in the same damn place.
It’s too frustrating. I head into shore, happy in the surging and breaking of the waves the closer I get. It’s a fight, but towards a comfortable place. I finally wash up on the sand, miraculously escaping the schools of great whites. And there’s the beach ball umbrella. But it’s not the same one. I look down the beach and see that just about everybody in Carlsbad has brought the same, damn umbrella to the ocean, the unoriginal bastards. I count my strides while walking up the beach to where my family plays. I swam at least a half mile, not bad for my first venture into the ocean.
• • •
But Carlsbad was only practice for my first real event, the Santa Monica Breakwater Swim. A hundred or so extremely fit swimmers and triathletes mill around on the beach early on a Sunday morning a couple of days after my practice in Carlsbad while members of the Southern California Aquatic Club set up tables for checking in.
A crude map drawn in blue pen on a casually ripped piece of legal paper shows the course. Two laps around two sets of buoys set about a quarter of a mile apart, then back into shore and up to the check-in tables. A boat with LIFEGUARD written on its sides begins dropping the giant orange buoys off the shore as I sign in, spraying water on preteen surfer boys who bob up and down on boogie boards. The boat drops the first two buoys straight out to sea from the stretch of beach where the check-in tables stand, one about forty yards, the other maybe seventy-five yards from the shore.
The number of swimmers on the beach surprises and relieves me. My fears of being alone in the water, with no one else for the sharks, subside. I scan the crowd for some fleshier swimmers, a middle-aged woman with a body like a seal perhaps. Sharks like seals. But most of these people have rock-hard bodies.
My race packet comes with a yellow bathing cap imprinted with the names of the sponsors. Not a very sexy accessory, but everyone’s putting theirs on and I do the same. People walk into the water, dive over a few waves and swim out to where the first set of buoys float, others roam the beach. Everyone seems part of a club or clique. But like at the gym at the London Y, I know no one, so I sit on my towel watching the ocean. Eventually I swim out to the buoys myself. They’re huge up close, ballooning upwards at least six feet above my head while I tread water. Yellow ropes hang from them, tied to weights that rest on the ocean floor.
By the time the race begins I’m a little nervous, but OK for the most part. More than a hundred people line up along the sand. A young guy with a goatee and a bullhorn stands in front of us explaining what we need to do, but apparently everyone already knows because nobody seems all that attentive. And before I know what’s happening an air horn goes off and everyone’s running into the ocean as if it might go somewhere if they acted less like a crazed mob.
I’m not aiming for victory so I jog in, but even so, eager swimmers press me from all sides. As we aim lemming-like into the deeper water and go from wading to swimming I know how mass panic must feel. I swim for the buoys with fingertips constantly pulling on my toes. The whole race feels like this. Some yellow bathing caps pass me, I pass others, but throughout the two laps around the sets of buoys it seems someone’s always pulling on my toes, or two swimmers are converging on me from either side making me stop and tread water while they crash into each other right in front of me. Even the sharks stay away from this sea of aggression.
Eventually the first set of buoys shows up for the last time. I go around the one closest to shore and head for the beach. Others sprawl all around me, hurrying for the chute where we grab numbers and people with stopwatches record our times. I get through the mile and a quarter – half a Hellespont – in a little more than thirty-two minutes. Is this fast? I have no idea. A woman tells me I’m sixth in my age group. How many were in my age group? I have no idea. Six, maybe.
But I’ve made it. As I stand around watching others finish – I’m far from the slowest, which is nice – some dedicated triathletes strike up a conversation and tell me there’s another race in a few days a few miles south in Playa del Rey. Surviving this one has me hooked, so I decide I’ll do it.
The Playa del Rey event is a duathlon, with a five-kilometer race after a one thousand meter swim. Now that I’ve done a mile and a quarter in the ocean I’m superman, so this is no problem for me. Until I’m in the water, that is. The race starts at six-thirty p.m., and no one has bothered letting me know that the ocean’s a more turbulent place in the evenings, at least the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California in August. Waves attack me all the way through the swim, almost personally it seems, so that before I’m halfway through I’m not only extremely tired, I’m offended at this treatment. I think about turning towards shore and saying the hell with it, but this, I’m fairly certain, would not impress my new triathlete friends. So I struggle through it and eventually struggle out of the waves near the chute that will take me to where my running shoes and shorts wait. A man somewhere on the beach shouts out, “Come on buddy! Run it out! Run it, run it!” I would feed him to the sharks if I didn’t have an important race to finish. The run goes OK, mainly because I’m numb and don’t know any better. My legs move, I tell myself to enjoy the sunset over the beach, and in a little more than twenty minutes – maybe a lot more, I don’t have a watch – I get to the finish line.
Looking down I realize that wearing grey gym shorts over my wet bathing suit was a bad idea. It looks like I’ve peed my pants.
• • •
I stand at the front of the classroom feigning attention as one of God’s dullest undergraduates prattles. Not all my students fit this description. For example, those who might be reading this are some of the brightest young people in Nebraska. But some of the others . . . They only tell me what I’ve already told them, adding a few mistakes of their own. My eyes wander across the tops of their heads, their backwards baseball caps dot my horizon, and as I cross my arms I caress my lats. They’ve grown huge. My body’s getting younger as I near middle age, from lurching across the pool for an hour every morning before dawn. My pecs beg for a squeeze but I resist. I am a sexy bitch, oh yes.
These laps in the pool have turned me into the Adonis of the English Department – or at least the Leander – and others envy me. I exude magnanimity in my elevation but others can’t help wanting to be me. I even have defined back muscles. Marlowe, describing Leander, tells “How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly,” and talks about the gods imprinting “That heavenly path, with many a curious dint, That runs along his back,” which I take to be rear deltoids. And I’ve got me some of those, too. If this all sounds narcissistic, keep in mind that, again on the authority of Marlowe, Leander was even better looking than Narcissus. Tougher too. A guy who can swim from one continent to another wasn’t about to drown in a little puddle.
But I seem to lack this last of Leander’s qualities, back muscles aside. Quitting becomes a problem. As fall goes on and I get stronger in some ways, my will remains too flexible. When I ran for the high school track team I gravitated to the shortest distances I could get away with. When the pain became too insistent, my breath too short, I eased up every time. Not enough so that everyone could notice, but I knew what was happening. I won a couple of third place trophies, enough success so everyone thought I was making an adequate effort.
I find myself leaving workouts before finishing all the laps. My kids need rides to school, I say. I’m feeling a muscle strain in my shoulder and don’t want it turning into a pull, I say. Jim, my lane partner, never slackens, never gives up. I keep ahead of him because he’s got to be near seventy, but not nearly as far ahead as I should be. The students who supervise most of the workouts – women from the swim team – parcel out the tasks. Four hundred swim, three hundred pull, three hundred kick, a typical warmup. Those are hundreds of yards, freestyle, then without kicking, then with the kickboard, no arms. I always make it through these beginnings. Then my lane begins falling behind.
The swimmers in lanes five and six go faster, making it through about two miles most mornings. Jim and I usually go for about a mile and a half. The days when the workout’s a series of longer, harder swims, with laps of butterfly thrown in for torture, bring out the quitting, the strained shoulder muscle, the imagined kids’ pleas for early trips to school. As I gasp for breath I hear them calling me home and can’t ignore them. My parenting credentials are more important than a Romantic swimming feat.
But this slackening of the will won’t do. The excuses fool no one, especially not me. The Hellespont doesn’t have a wall every twenty-five yards, or a spot to stop and get out when I want to give up. Someone in a boat will guide my way – hopefully a decorative Turkish fisherman who finds my feat miraculous and tells all his friends, who then buy me uzo all night long afterwards – but I won’t get in that boat if I get too tired. I can’t. I think I’m finding out, in the pre-dawn hours in my university’s pool in Nebraska, why I need to swim Byron’s swim. Leander had a woman on the other side. Byron had a clubfoot. I have a tendency to give up. The motive and the excuse, maybe even the justification for my eager embrace of this degrading descent into vanity, hubris and a ten-step plan for tighter buns look a bit clearer.
• • •
The days shorten and the time for putting the hard top on my Jeep comes, but I resist. Those morning drives to the pool chill me. Bundled in my coat with the hood on, I put up with it so I can ride home in a little sunshine in the afternoons, forgetting for a brief time that I live on the Plains, thousands of miles from an ocean. I set the alarm clock back to 5:50 a.m. so I can get to the pool just a few minutes earlier. If I swim just a few laps before the next person gets in the pool I can finish the warmup without anyone catching me. As the workout moves to more repetitions of shorter swims I do a better job of keeping up. I sustain short bursts of speed more easily than longer distances, which have me gasping for breath half the way through. But that’s getting better too.
On a Saturday morning in the Fall, with only a few of us dedicated swimmers in the pool and all in our own lanes, I’m managing most of the flip turns and putting in the same laps the others are doing almost at the same pace. I feel my shoulders straining as I pull through each lap, working it in the noisy underwater world of my exhaling bubbles and splashing strokes. Soreness succeeds monotony, but I’m getting the work done. And as I finish the last set of one-hundred-yard freestyle repetitions while others leave the pool and head for the locker rooms, I slowly realize I’ve made it through the entire workout. I’ve done the same number of laps as the better swimmers in lanes five and six, more than the weaker ones in the first two lanes.
A small victory, but a real one. Months of workouts lay ahead before I head to Greece for a very different kind of water and a greater distance than I’ve gone in even the longest of my indoor pool workouts. But I’m feeling more and more confident that I’ll get to the other side. I’m sure Byron was after something more. He denied it in his few poetic references to his swim. Other Romantics, like Wordsworth, the sublime egotist, Keats, that precious aesthete who all my students want to date, Shelley with his atheistic messianic poses, thought they were stretching past the Cartesian mind-body split and reuniting all in a heroic apotheosis.
Byron did that too, now and then, but with the knowledge that explanations rarely explain anything, that an epic poem can’t communicate the meaning of life, or even of one part of one life. He was also a chubby boy who became a manic dieter, vain enough about his looks to pose for portraits every time he bought a new suit of clothes. Maybe that was his way of uniting mind and body – swimming the Hellespont then joking about it in brilliant epic poetry that takes nothing seriously.
The ironic Byron had it about right when he pointed out that as heroic as Leander was, he eventually drowned. Who can keep up all that humpin’, bumpin’, swimming, fighting off gods in the water every evening and every morning without going under? “?’Twere hard to say who fared the best,” Byron wrote in his poem on swimming the Hellespont:
Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labour, I my jest;
For he was drowned, and I’ve the ague.
Ague, by the way – pronounced “eygyoo” – just means fever. I’d like to think Byron got more than that from his feat, but maybe he didn’t.
I don’t kid myself that swimming to Abydos will explain why I’ve done all this. Maybe I’ll look in the mirror for help there, for a glimmer or gleam that tells me I’ve gained more than a few photos and a barroom anecdote. Hopefully I’ll have a six-pack and a Mediterranean tan by then so if I see no profound truths etched into my enlightened eyes, at least I’ll see one of the prettier midddle-aged Nebraskans in Turkey.